Thursday, September 12, 2013

Racial Identity and Me

On federal employment forms, I am (now) allowed to choose any and all races that I belong to. It used to be that I had to choose "Other" and then write in the various races that I claimed. Why the federal government is asking me about race is something that I can understand - at least I think I can understand, given the steep historical imbalances between Whites and not-Whites. However, the racial categories puzzle me:
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
Sometimes, "Alaska Native" and "Native Hawaiian" are their own unique categories, but at other times they aren't. (This makes me wonder whether there is actually any functionality in separating these groups, since these two categories don't always exist as separate in all government forms.)

Even when I was a kid, growing up in the 1980s, I always had problems with this set of pigeonholes, since the pigeonholes all seemed ... wrong. Even now that I can check more than one box (yeah, that "other" box was also problematic), why do we as a nation continue to use such heavily outdated definitions of "race"? I mean, an American from Easter Island would be classified as "Other Pacific Islander", right alongside a person from Papua New Guinea, but what similarity could be drawn from that? Nothing!

But - depending on how you define the association of Easter Island - this person could also define themselves as American Indian. Why? According to the Office of Management and Budget:
American Indian or Alaska Native refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
So the Easter Island-American would have the option of claiming to be an American Indian or an "Other Pacific Islander." Confusing.

And what about Russian Aleuts? Would the fact that they aren't from Alaska mean that they wouldn't count as "Alaska Native" and therefore have to call themselves "Asian"? Does the fact that movement between Western Alaska and Eastern Russian occurred since before the European "discovery" of the "New World" qualify Russian Aleut-descended people to claim that they are as much Native Alaskans as their closely related kin who happened to live on the other side of the Bering Straits? Or does the fact that Alaskan Aleuts are on the East side of the Straits mean that they are somehow the same "race" as the various Athabaskan tribes that lived in the interior of Alaska?

And what about my "Black" friends who are as bi-racial as me? Why were they supposed to check "Black" and couldn't instead choose "White," even though I was given the option of choosing between "Asian" and "White"? (This was before even the "Other" option.)

And then someone told me that race was about culture. (I later learned that this wasn't technically true, even though race and culture and ethnicity are often conflated around the world, since a distinct culture is often held by a distinct ethnicity, which is often - but not always - perceived to be of a distinct race from other, neighboring populations.) But - even then - I had to wonder why my Japanese mother was the same "Asian" as my friend's Pakistani mother. And why was my naturalized-American friend from a Senegalese family considered to be the same "Black" as my friend who could trace his ancestry to slavery? So the culture definition didn't make sense to me, either.

When I was about 9, I came to realize that the construct of "race" - that thing that so many think is simple and by which racialists and racists both ascribe with pride - isn't really that simple at all. Indeed, when I read in high school about the changes to the concept of "White" to expand to include the various non-Anglo Saxon European ethnicities (so now even Italians, Spaniards, Irish, and Russians are as "White" as WASPs), this whole notion of "race" showed itself to be about as solid as shifting sand.

So now federal and state forms don't really cause me to re-evaluate my racial identity every time I fill them out (and make me try to remember what I chose last time, since I didn't want to be accused of lying on a government document). Now I can just choose a whole bunch of things to which I can stake some sort of ancestral claim, and then let some clerk sort it out to make my notion of my ancestry fit into their arbitrary constructs of race. I'm not a big fan of the "race" part of the form, because I think that it's a question based on a fundamentally inconsistent assessment of a culturally derived concept based on a historical condition that itself is no longer valid.

But I'll just be happy in checking multiple boxes and letting the government try and determine what I meant by my selection.

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